By Alan J. Bartels
BIG GAME HUNTING in Western Nebraska offers big, enjoyable challenges to sportsmen of all levels. From novices to the most experienced hunters, opportunities abound in this rugged land of plenty. Whether you choose to use a bow and arrow, muzzleloader or a modern firearm, Western Nebraska has the varied habitat and incredible wildlife diversity to suit your big game quest for adventure. Proficient with the atlatl? There is even a big game hunting season for you and your primitive weaponry.
Mule deer and whitetail deer, several subspecies of turkey, pronghorn and elk are abundant. Occasional bighorn sheep permits are available to a few fortunate hunters.
The Nebraska National Forest’s Bessey Ranger District near Halsey and Thedford, the Pine Ridge Ranger District at Chadron and the Samuel McKelvie National Forest southwest of Valentine provide hunting opportunities, as does the Oglala National Grasslands in Sioux and Dawes counties. Hunting is also allowed for some game species at the Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Both are located in Cherry County. Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Garden County offers hunting opportunities in the natural garden of the Nebraska Sandhills.
Wildlife management areas and some state parks, as well as Conservation Reserve Program lands provide additional access to acres for hunters. On some of these lands a state park permit is required, along with hunting permits and stamps.
Knowledgeable outfitters can provide hunting and lodging opportunities. Private landowners hold the key to gaining access to most of Nebraska’s hunting lands. Often all it takes is a friendly knock on the door and polite request to gain access.
BIRD HUNTING in Western Nebraska is equally rewarding to the flocks of hunters who pursue these fast-flighted animals. From North Platte to Ogallala, Lewellen to Oshkosh and west along the North Platte River to Scottsbluff and beyond, the waterfowl hunting is some of the best in the world. Pheasant and grouse are pursued on the High Plains and throughout the Sandhills, and doves can be ambushed near sunflower fields and ponds. Coveys of bobwhite quail erupt from woodlots and field edges in a blur confusing mammalian predators such as coyotes, bobcats and shotgun-wielding human hunters.
In addition to waterfowl, upland game birds and big game, Western Nebraska also has its fair share of opportunities for SMALL GAME HUNTING. Jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits and squirrels are plentiful and receive little hunting pressure. Ranches and other properties with long-standing arrangements for big game hunters are often happy and willing to allow courteous hunters on their land to pursue small game.
HOW TO GET YOUR SHOT AT HUNTING
Many hunters learn the outdoors lifestyle from their parents, grandparents and family friends. For those without this opportunity who want to pursue game, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission offers workshops. Additionally, having taken a hunter safety course is mandatory for hunters ages 12 through 29 in Nebraska. Courses are required both of archery and firearm hunters. Classroom courses and online classes are available: http://outdoornebraska.gov/huntereducation/
Now that you’re certified, proficient and safe with your weapon of choice, knowledgeable about wildlife hunting seasons and know what game animals you are after – where do you hunt? Luckily for you and all hunters, Western Nebraska has the most public hunting land in the entire state.
Striking up a conversation at a local café where locals are gathered for morning coffee could result in learning about local places to hunt. A more productive option may be to pick up the free hunting guides available at many convenience stores, gas stations, liquor stores, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, post offices, chambers of commerce and visitor centers. Season dates, places to hunt and other useful information is provided. Hunting licenses and required habitat stamps can also be purchased at many of these same places.
A comprehensive list of public lands and private property accessible by the public can be found here: http:/outdoornebraska.gov/publicaccessatlas
Programs offering access to other lands can be found here: http://outdoornebraska.gov/wheretohunt.
Knocking on the door of a landowner can gain access to some of the state’s best hunting lands. Many landowners have long-standing relationships with hunters who hunt their property each year. You may be able to gain access by going only after small game, or, by offering to harvest a doe deer instead of going after a trophy buck.
Requests to hunt should be made in advance of the season – not early in the morning on opening day. Interrupting farmers during harvest or ranchers during a cattle drive, could be a sure way to hear a definitive “NO!” Courtesy goes a long way.
Conversely, offering to help with farm and ranch chores can help gain entry. Offering the landowner some of the harvested game meat may be appreciated. Never cross onto neighboring land without permission and be conscious of other people, nearby residences, pets and livestock. Never leave your trash behind, and consider collecting trash you encounter.
When hunters operate in polite fashion that respects the wildlife, the land and the landowner, opportunities for increased hunting opportunities, and close friendships, are often the result.
Hunting is a cherished tradition in Western Nebraska. Ask any hunter and they will tell you: hunting is about much more than bringing home the game. Get out there and discover it for yourself – in Western Nebraska.
Have questions about hunting in Western Nebraska? Visit the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s website at http://outdoornebraska.gov.
Shoot straight and be safe.